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(Credits: Far Out / Rob Hakalski)

Music

Far Out Meets: Bill Bruford on jazz, jungles and the importance of team collaboration

Bill Bruford is seated across from his computer, carefully applying a backdrop of the pastoral English countryside to conceal the contents of his office. He’s a fastidious man and is keen to press the importance of time. His music may be ornate, but he prefers to answer his questions concisely and with great insight, bolstered by cackles of laughter at the appropriate junctures. When my video kicks in, I inform him that I’m not much of a looker. “Join the club, mate,” he chuckles. He assures me that he isn’t in Cumbria, despite the background on Zoom, but says he lives near Tony Banks, the keyboard wizard he performed with in 1976 when he toured with Genesis. More on that later.

“You’ve been given this assignment by your admirable magazine called Far Out,” the drummer says, looking over his notes, eager to appear polite and professional during the 20 minutes we have together. He flatters me, but he would be forgiven if he didn’t bow down to formality. His pedigree is impressive, having written with Yes and King Crimson, and was Phil Collins‘ drummer of choice during the A Trick of The Tail tour as he made the jump from the back of the stage to the front.

Bruford has also released a series of probing compositions under his own name, highlighting every corner of his expansive kit. Fittingly, he is here to discuss his latest box-set Making a Song and Dance: A Complete-Career Collection (“my third in a row”), which gives an overview of his career as a drummer and a creative thinker.

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Whether he intends to or not, he manages to demystify himself by virtue of his answers, not least in his response to his admittance to King Crimson. “Well, by asking Robert Fripp,” he muses, “Basically. But we knew each other a fair bit. We had toured together in the United States as co-headliners. One night they’d be top of the bill, and another night, we’d be top of the bill; alternating co-headliners, as it were. And that was great.” 

Bruford was already a seasoned player when he joined King Crimson in 1972, having worked on the first five albums Yes had issued. Yes were steadily becoming one of the most interesting bands in the progressive genre, but by 1972, the drummer fancied a change of scenery. “I had let it be known already that I really loved King Crimson, and would have loved to have played in it. So, this was six or nine months later, and I said to him, ‘I think this could be a good time.'”

The drummer then chuckles as he remembers Fripp’s reply: “‘I think you’re about ready now,'” he remembered. “He said it as if I were a hothouse tomato, ripening on the vine,” Bruford cackles, dispelling any preconceived notions that the guitarist is as haughty as his compositions might suggest him to be. “Which, indeed, I probably was, and he came over to my house, and he played a bit, and ‘What would you do if I did this?’ It was that kind of audition. Which was great: I immediately loved the group, and I have always loved the group.”

Bruford exhibits an enthusiasm for the process of writing, as well as the importance of playing as part of a wide mosaic, everyone playing their part to paint an aural tapestry that collectively overshadows any individual effort a musician may bring on their own. Bruford has a point, take away one musician from the Yes meisterwerk The Yes Album, and the whole thing falls apart. What the band brought wasn’t virtuosity, but commitment to the ensemble they represented.

Bruford is flattered to hear that Far Out put an isolated performance of his drumming done in conjunction with Chris Squire’s propulsive fingerwork, but he’s unconvinced that a drummer’s job is to follow the lead of a bass guitarist. “I think the bass-drummer relationship is a bit overcooked, myself,” he says. “I think drummers have musical relationships with whoever is the strongest time-keeper of the piece of music at the time. And in so-called ‘progressive’ or ‘symphonic’ rock, that can vary a lot. The bass line might not be playing for a while, so I’m not exactly going to lock in with anybody there. And it may be that Rick Wakeman is playing something on keyboards that I really ought to be very tight with. So, it comes and goes a lot. We were all impetuous and hot-headed-bit too arrogant, and not very good at listening, but we got better at listening. Listening to other people is key, of course, to all musicians.”

“Chris was a good guy, a good player, very interesting, yes,” Bruford mutters, searching for the key description to describe Yes’s longest-standing bandmate. “Again, same attitude. I don’t have this fixed attitude with a drummer’s relationship with a bass player. Half the time Chris’s bass line was so far up the neck of the bass, it was more of a lead guitar anyway. So, I was playing with all the people all the time, and I didn’t give any preferences to anybody in terms of this fixed relationship. Mythically, you’re supposed to have this great relationship between a bass player and a drummer. We didn’t work that way.”

He views Mike Rutherford in a similar light but re-iterates that he played with everyone in Genesis, when he was invited to perform as a stage drummer, as Phil Collins – nominally the band’s drummer – was now being promoted to lead singer. Bruford knew Collins from a jazz fusion offshoot, although Bruford downplays his importance to Brand X. “We knocked around in London for three or four gigs,” Bruford says. “I got to know Phil Collins through doing that. He told me the story about Peter Gabriel who was leaving the group. Phil knew my stuff, and either he or I made the obvious conclusion: ‘If Gabriel’s leaving and you [Collins] can sing better than anyone auditioning, why don’t you sing and I’ll play drums behind you for a year or so, until you have found your feet?'”

A Trick of The Tail was a strong launching pad for Collins – there are many hardcore fans, including this writer, who consider it a watershed moment for the band – and by the time the groups readied themselves to record Wind & Wuthering, they had found a more permanent replacement in Chester Thompson, who would continue to drum for Genesis until the 1990s. Bruford, never one to sit idly by, was preparing himself for the leap into solo stardom. “I started in 1979 [ as a solo artist], so when I was with Genesis in 1976, I was thinking about it, and I was watching how people worked with other musicians,” Bruford explains. “I was a session guy: I played with Roy Harper in 1975, and Genesis in 1976. I did a lot of studio work. I tried to learn how musicians work in groups and tried to find how possible it would be to form one, and I did in 1977. I called up some people I thought would work well together, just on a hunch really. There was the fabulous Allan Holdsworth on guitar.”

“The name of the band was Bruford, which sounds a bit weird to you maybe, but think of it on the lines of Santana or Argent,” Bruford reasons. “Or other bands of the day that had the leaders name as the name of the band. And we had a very successful run of four albums; four years, roughly. It was 1977 to 1980.”

Having worked with two of the most accomplished progressive bands of the 1970s – three, if you include his stint with Genesis – Bruford had more than earned himself the right to name his outfit after himself, but I’m also curious to hear about his involvement with the convolutedly named Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe during the 1980s (I stutter over the name, but the percussionist gets the point).

“Various factions of Yes had fallen out. It’s a long story, and I don’t think you need to know all this,” Bruford says, pointing to the time we have left during this call. But he agrees to give a truncated version of the events: “Basically, Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe were living in the UK, while much of the other Yes were living in California, and we wanted to do a tour that they didn’t want to go on. And we had to use our own names as opposed to the name Yes. It was a debating point as to which of the two factions was the group Yes. You get this a lot from bands of the era: The Eagles and some of the more famous bands had these sorts of problems. I ended up in that band [Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe] for a while that stupidly metamorphosised into Yes, and went on to make one of the worst records I have ever been on: Union. Then I reverted to where I should have been, but I was having kind of a nice holiday anyway. But I should have been back in jazz, which is where I was with my band, Earthworks.”

Bill Bruford with King Crimson in 1981. (Credit: Patrick Harbron)

Earthworks were a training ground for a series of musicians who came to re-interpret the lexicon of jazz. Django Bates and Iain Ballamy were two of the musicians who helped launch the group, but Bruford seems proud of the many musicians who served their time in the group. “Nowadays, they tend to talk about Gwilym Simcock,” Bruford attests, “A brilliant pianist, and Laurie Cottle on bass; Tim Garland, too. All these people have been through Earthworks. Earthworks only ever had British musicians. Air travel and rehearsing across the Atlantic is a drag. So, it’s functionally and logistically much easier [to work with British musicians]. But yeah, it’s a point of trying to make a difference between European jazz and American jazz. In so far as if the Europeans simply copy the Americans, it’s no fun at all.”

Like many aspects of the interview, Bruford’s decision to work with British musicians has logical, instead of esoteric, properties, and the picture I get of the drummer is one of pragmatism and discipline. “I’m very privileged to be one of those people who can look you in the eye and say that I’ve played the music that I’ve wanted,” he says. “Where I wanted, when I wanted and with whom I wanted for pretty much my whole career, which is hard to say these days. Most people end up playing on something they don’t particularly care for, or actively hate. But they are musicians, so they play what they are required to play. Fortunately, I’ve been privileged to be able to play anything I want with all the guys, subject to negotiation. Which has been lovely, and a very strong element here has been intergenerational in the sense that when people of my generation see the pleasure that younger people of another generation get from the music, it’s a real kick.”

Bruford turns the clock back to recall Jazz 625 on BBC. He was deeply excited by the presence of the percussionists chipping in from the back, clearly directing the other musicians on stage. He favours the challenge of jazz drumming, stating that the lack of commercial pressures liberates jazz drummers to showcase what the kit is capable of. 

“Favourite drummers?” he muses. “Well, that’s quite easy: I grew up with jazz, so of course I was with (sic) all the great jazz drummers of the day, such as Max Roach, Joe Morello from Dave Brubeck Quartet and perhaps Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Fantastic group, big sound. I remember aged 10 or 11 watching Jazz 625 on BBC – black and white telly – and it sounded great,” Bruford continues. “I watched these guys playing and wondering how they never seemed to go wrong. How they seemed to control the three or four guys in front of them. And if you were in Art Blakey’s group in 1965, the music didn’t go anywhere until the drummer said so. Really put on the power behind you”.

He highlights the importance of collaboration and says Fripp is far more synergetic than many in the trendy presses give him credit for. Fripp is often perceived as a director, orchestrating his flourishes through passages written on pieces of paper, noting every stem as it is supposed to be performed on the record.

Fripp, Bruford says, is far more flexible than that. “Robert would deny he was any kind of a bandleader,” Bruford explains. “He frequently has done that, and he wasn’t necessarily the ‘Great Guru’, which is a common sort of feeling that Robert sort of walked in with sheets and sheets of music, and we all sat down and played that. It was not the way at all, and much of the music in the 1980s was guided by Adrian Belew. And he had the very unenviable job of writing lyrics in the last 24 or 48 hours of a recording session. He did really well with the lyrics, and I really enjoyed the 1980s band (King Crimson) myself.”

Belew (“Stress on the second syllable: Be-lew,” says the percussionist, correcting my awkward pronunciation), was responsible for many of the more experimental techniques the band utilised, and Bruford highlights ‘Thela Hun Ginjeet’ as an instance in which the songwriter recorded a conversation that fuelled the track. As if eager to demythologise the band further, Bruford says that ‘Thela Hun Ginjeet’ is actually an anagram for ‘heat in the jungle’. Tidbits aside, it’s a fiery track. 

There are several other inventive pieces heard on Making a Song and Dance: A Complete-Career Collection, which is a neat compendium of his life, whether it’s playing with Yes, King Crimson, or furnishing a tune of his own making. It’s perfect for completists, but it’s also a strong starting point for novices who can use it as their guide to exploring aspects of Bruford’s (admittedly impressive) career. Bruford is deservedly proud of the efforts. “In my case, I want people to hear the music,” he explains, “and when they do hear it, they always love it.”

Making a Song and Dance: A Complete-Career Collection is out on April 29th.

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